FE Best Banks Awards: Know who gets the Lifetime Achievement Award

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January 09, 2019 6:08 AM

They don’t make them like Arundhati Bhattacharya any more. A public sector CEO with the confidence to say no with the full knowledge it might cost her the job.

Arundhati Bhattacharya

They don’t make them like Arundhati Bhattacharya any more. A public sector CEO with the confidence to say no with the full knowledge it might cost her the job. “I always asked for everything in writing,” says the former chairman of State Bank of India (SBI). But didn’t it get her into trouble? No. The answer is matter of fact: They gave me an extension.

But then Bhattacharya’s has always been a voice of reason, her expectations always rational. And she is the constant learner, quick to build on an idea even if it is from the liftman and making deep dives to keep abreast of digital banking. To top it all, she was born courageous; even as a young girl in small-town India, she was never scared to travel on her own.

The secret of her success in her words: Stay grounded, you will be accessible and you can hear the things you need to hear not what you want to hear. That’s how she not only survived the pulls and pressures of life in the country’s top public sector bank, she thrived. A people’s person, Bhattacharya took on the trade unions negotiating skillfully to ensure the five associates of SBI were merged with it.

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After a lifetime in banking, and having left SBI a more credible institution, Bhattacharya is itching to be back with her books, determined to write a thesis. Abandoning her subject in college — English Literature — she is looking to use her rich experience to research financial inclusion. That doesn’t mean she won’t load up on more novels even if her side table is groaning under the weight of half a dozen tomes. But it might mean her family doesn’t get to taste her mutton vindaloo as often as it would like to. Or her roast chicken sandwiches which were such a hit during her days in Kharagpur because she used mayonnaise — which she made herself—something of a novelty in those days. But despite her busy schedule — she is working with a couple of NGOs —Bhattacharya hopes she won’t miss out on travel and visits to flea markets to pick up some bargains.

Already she’s spending a lot more time in her favourite city — Kolkata. But it’s New York that enchants her with its many museums, public libraries and Central Park. Bhattacharya enjoyed her stint there although it was not an easy assignment. Indeed, given her daughter was very young at the time she made some very difficult choices. But then she is tough, personifying in some ways the hardy Tree of Heaven — the main metaphor in one of her favourite books A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. It hasn’t always been easy. But that’s not how India’s ace banker would have wanted it.

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